WHEN A TEAM of scientists in 1985 found the wreck of the Titanic 13,000 feet under water, the most moving of the many slides they brought back were the ones of dinner plates and wine bottles scattered on the ocean floor. Last month a French expedition retrieved some of those plates, along with other items, in a widely criticized attempt to "salvage" some of the more valuable "artifacts" from the wreck, whose discovery was an eerie, saddening experience for all those who grew up hearing its story. Robert G. Ballard, head of the joint U.S.-French expedition that discovered the wreck, had pleaded with treasure seekers at the time "not to desecrate this memorial." A similar plea came from Congress, which passed largely symbolic legislation designating the site an international memorial to its 1,575 dead, not to be disturbed by scavengers. But the French expedition has pressed ahead regardless. You can bet those plates won't look so moving in a museum case on dry land.
This is not the first divergence of interests between the two teams of scientists that collaborated to find the ship -- one from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute here, the other from what has been called, in a perhaps unfortunate translation, the French Institute for Research and Exploitation of the Sea. Back in the first euphoric days after the initial discovery, the French group accused the Americans of releasing their share of the dramatic expedition pictures too early, thus lowering the value of the ones allotted to France. The motives for this salvage operation are likewise partly financial: rumors abound of jewel boxes and treasure chests that were accompanying their wealthy owners across the Atlantic, and French oceanographers, unlike American ones, are obliged to finance their scientific activities by leasing their technology to foreigners. (The foreign investors financing this expedition include a "mysterious" unidentified wealthy Englishman.)
Stung by charges of historical and cultural insensitivity, the French protest that they are in it for scientific and archaeological reasons and are not "grave robbers." They promise moreover not to sell any items they retrieve. But the pained disappointment that their operations are causing is not quite financial in source; it comes, rather, from the longstanding power of the Titanic legend and the humility it evokes. "In a solitude of the sea/Deep from human vanity/And the Pride of Life that planned her, stilly couches she," Thomas Hardy wrote of the Titanic in 1914. Thirteen thousand feet, it seems, is not quite deep enough for that.